Futures Terminology

In everyday conversation, people talk about ‘the future’ in the singular, as though there was one future we were heading towards – but myriads of decisions, big and small are being made, every moment of every day.

As each decision is made, it takes some futures out of contention and steers us towards other futures that are now more able to come into being.  

Since the 1990s, various futurists, including Dr Joseph Voros, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University of Technology, have developed a wider set of terms for distinguishing between different types of futures. They are each described in this video interview between Shenagh Gleisner and Stephanie Pride:

Potential Futures

Everything beyond the present moment is a ‘potential future’. We can see in the accompanying diagram, this is the broadest category.  As Professor Riel Miller, Head of Foresight at UNESCO says ‘the future doesn’t exist’ because ahead of every moment, there are multiple possible potential futures available.

Projected Future

At the other end of the future spectrum, we have the concept of ‘the projected future’, the singular default, business as usual, extrapolated ‘continuation of the past through the present’ future.  This is the one we see in many planning documents - it builds in the underlying assumptions that everything will continue to happen in the same way and at the same rate as it has been doing.

Probable Futures

The next term is ‘probable futures’ – and by this Voros meant those we think are ‘likely to happen’, usually based on current trends.  This category isn’t singular, we’re already dealing with a range of probable futures - though far too often thinking about probable futures is based on quantitative trends only, not qualitative data, so they often end up as slight variants on the ‘projected future’.  It’s important to note that just because a future is ‘probable’, it doesn’t mean that’s the future we’ll probably get!

Plausible Futures

The next step outwards is ‘plausible futures’. Voros defined this group as those we think could happen based on our current understanding of how the world works (laws of physics, social processes, etc), i.e. we can construct a coherent narrative about how this future could come into being, based on what we know now (see also ‘ambient futures’ below).  

Possible Futures

Moving one step out from this, there are ‘possible futures’  - those futures that we think might happen, based on some future knowledge we do not yet possess, but which we might possess someday e.g. today, we’re able to sequence the genomes of different strains of coronavirus. Back in 1953 when the structure of DNA was discovered, today’s situation in relation to 24 hour or less genome sequencing would have been a ‘possible future’ but not necessarily a ‘plausible future’ as the knowledge necessary to sequence genomes did not yet exist.

Preposterous Futures

These are the futures judged to be ‘ridiculous’, ‘impossible’, or that will ‘never’ happen. This category arises from the work of Professor James Dator (University of Hawai’i) and his Second Law of the Future—“any useful idea about the future should appear ridiculous”.

It’s important not to limit our imaginations to ‘possible futures’ and to push ourselves to consider ‘preposterous futures’.  For many people, the present we now inhabit would have seemed a preposterous future only a decade ago!

Preferable Future(s)

‘Preferable futures’ are those we think ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ happen.  This category brings in normative assumptions and value judgements.  We all have preferred futures, whether we articulate them or not. It’s really important to understand what our preferred futures are:

  • so that we can act towards them, to help bring them into being, and
  • so that we understand the extent that our preferred futures are influencing our perceptions of probable, plausible or probable futures

Assumed Future

Working with clients, I’ve found the concept of the ‘assumed future’ really useful for them.  The assumed future is ‘a’ future most people are expecting to move towards, whether they articulate it or not.  Often assumptions about this future are largely unconscious or at least tacit. The assumed future is important because it pervades people’s decision-making at every level, even though it may not be explicit.  To the extent that the assumed future may not be based on up-to-date or sufficiently broad understandings of patterns of change, it may lead to decisions and behaviours that limit future choices. Just as with the ‘preferred future’ it’s important that we understand what it is, and the extent to which it is influencing our perceptions of probable, plausible or probable futures (as well as what is on the possible/preposterous boundary!)

Ambient Futures

Lastly, the concept of ‘ambient futures’ is currently being developed by Dr Wendy Schultz, Univ. of Houston-Clear Lake.  She has developed the term to provide vocabulary for the concept that ‘there is no such thing as a “normal” future from which all other futures are exceptions, and no images of the future that are more plausible than any others’.

So why does this terminology, this framework for thinking, matter?

Having a technical vocabulary - a set of distinctions between different sorts of futures and terms to describe them matters because it has a direct bearing on our thinking processes, and our capacity to develop a functional forward view.

Having a greater technical vocabulary expands our capacities enabling us to understand our own thought processes better and be more deliberate about expanding the range of possible futures we bring into consideration.

By understanding patterns of change and pushing ourselves to widen the scope of our thinking - about a broader range of possible futures, about seemingly preposterous futures - we increase our ability to respond to what we can’t control, and to assert agency in relation to shaping what we can.  This, in turn, increases the capability of the public service to give effect to the stewardship principle and act in the long-term public interest. 

This content was created by Dr Stephanie Pride, StratEDGY Strategic Foresight for IPANZ, 2020